Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thinking With the Ecological Thought

So what am I learning from this encounter with Tim Morton's Ecological Thought?

That a thought unrelated to practice is empty. That the relation to practice, too, must be thought and developed. That practice necessarily makes room for embodied others (and not just strange strangers), who need their own room to breathe (la partage du souffle), and that the provision of such room within the text--within the practice of style--is an ethical matter.

An ethical text--one I can live with, in a strong sense of the phrase--provides a map of the positions it seeks to engage, a sketch of how they're related to one another and therefore how I expect to engage them. Such a map should allow the reader to assess both the terrain and my map, to come to an independent judgment of how persuasive or effective the engagement has been.

For instance: there are plenty of places in the literature of ecology/environmentalism that resemble, in some ways, the lines of thinking that Morton pursues. Why doesn't he engage with them, if only to elaborate differences? His thinking crosses paths with ideas about ecological modernization, and with Tim Ingold's work in The Perception of the Environment. Would it do damage to his thought to tarry awhile in the vicinity of such texts?

Traditional scholarly convention distributes the map of its engagements between primary texts, worked into the body of the text, and secondary references, confined to the foot- or end-notes. Such spatial distinctions establish, as it were, the kinship terms for academic work. Morton has endnotes, but they act more like links than references; his text is a field of wild cross-pollination. This enacts the idea that ecology means the loss of the foreground/background distinction, the evaporation of distance, but it also collapses the distinction between map and territory and, indeed, just about any epistemic distinctions whatsoever (this despite his claim to distinguish between, say, environmentalism and the ecological thought.).

Alongside these concerns, there is a question about the time of reading, an issue related to practices of attention. Traditional reading takes time, with the text being an artefact designed to orchestrate time (I think of David Miller's phrase about the Victorian novel as a "drill in the rhythms of industrial society"). It may be that virtual reality dissolves such artefacts, suspending reading in a space of lateral associations and an environment of optionality (I currently have a dozen tabs open in my browser, and can readily skip between them: the fabric of this writing is riddled with those possibilities, and the awareness that they affect the reader as well. ). In this informational space, reading "takes" no time: it is pock-marked with points, constellated but not connected. Having grown up breathing, following the marked paths, the vacant, interstellar spaces frighten and disorient me, leave me infuriated. But perhaps those raised in the upper atmosphere are acclimatized: this is what ecologists call "shifting baselines."

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